Walking into the rehearsal space mid-scene, I was immediately struck by the passion and intimacy which Calam Lynch’s Edward and Sam Liu’s Gaveston shared, and felt like I was intruding upon a private space. The desperation on Calam Lynch’s face as he attempted to prolong his kiss with Gaveston, who had finally backed away, was very moving. But monarchs are seldom entitled to a private life, and this is a play in which the king’s choice of sexual partner is seen as ruinous for the kingdom, or, at the very least, used as a pretext by power-hungry nobles hoping to usurp him.
Within this context, the choice of a 1980’s setting is inspired, as it provides a backdrop against which Gaveston can be played as a political activist in an ‘ACT UP’ t-shirt, whilst the homophobia of the other characters is all too plausible. Picking bits and pieces from all manner of 80’s culture and sub-culture, from punk to New Romanticism, via Bowie and Brutalism, director Charlotte Vickers and costume designer Marcus Knight-Adams have an extremely original and visually impressive aesthetic vision for the play.
Alongside homosexuality, this is a play about espionage, betrayal, and, above all, power. Marked by long periods of threats and inaction, but interspersed with sudden outbreaks of dramatic violence, the Cold War parallels drawn in this production, at first perhaps surprising, seem entirely apt. In the two scenes I witnessed, multiple characters looked on at the action, before sneaking onstage surreptitiously—this is a world where everyone watches and is watched.
One such intrusion saw Isabella (Rosa Garland) interrupt Edward and Gaveston’s moment, marking a complete sea-change, and the blocking quickly established the fact that Edward was caught between his wife and his lover. From the little I saw, the production seems to have struck an intriguing balance between a sympathetic and more critical portrayal of Isabella’s character. With both Edward and Gaveston raging against her, even having the audacity to stage a long and passionate kiss to rile her, I certainly pitied her.
However, the way Isabella spat out ‘Ganymede’, referring to Gaveston, had the weight of a homophobic slur, and, though the wronged wife, she was far from helpless. Seeming to wrestle with her conscience whilst planning a daring invasion of England in a later scene I witnessed, it was just as she had seemed to justify her intention, on the grounds that Edward was ‘betraying’ his country, that Joe Stephenson’s seductive Mortimer Jr. snuck up and put his arms around her. Returning his kiss with equal enthusiasm and leading him excitedly offstage, I was reminded that she was a royal with her own transgressive desires.
I could go on waxing lyrical about the many moments of brilliance which this play has to offer, however I should probably stop spoiling it and conclude by recommending that you definitely see this show, which promises to be one of the dramatic highlights of the year. And, with its 80’s music, fashion and stark LED lighting, the perfect pre-Cellar spectacle.
Edward II will show at the Oxford Playhouse, from 25-28 January.